Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Repealing the Laws of Physics

Review: The Practice Effect by David Brin

This novel is the reason I began reading everything I could find by David Brin. He took a single premise (what if one of the laws of thermodynamics were repealed?), and wove it into a clever tale of practical magic.

Dennis Nuel is a post-doctoral physics student whose mentor died in mid-experiment. Worse, his replacement, a boring instructor named Flaster, has removed Dennis from the lab he helped design, and substituted his rival, Bernard Brady. Nuel is coasting, waiting for a sign—like the other-worldly flittermaus his makeshift sling brought down at a party several nights ago.

Then Flaster approaches him with a proposition. Nuel will be allowed to take over in the lab again, if he will solve a little problem that has arisen.

The problem is the zievatron. Nuel discovers that Flaster and Brady had been unable to get any results after the accident that killed his mentor, until they tried using Nuel's search program. That's when they found the alternate world, and sent through several robots to explore it. The problem is, the return controls don't work any more—they can send materials (and living things) through the portal, but nothing comes back. Nuel agrees to go through to repair the unit, provided they buy him lots of supplies, in case it takes longer than he expects.

In addition to his camping supplies, Nuel will take with him a piglet-sized winged animal that came originally from the other world. He will also take a mystery: just as the machine warms up, Brady snidely informs him that "one of the laws of thermodynamics doesn't work the same in the new world." Then he's through, and sees something even more disturbing: the reason the return controls aren't working is that the control panel has been ripped apart. Three large copper cables are completely gone, and many smaller components lie smashed on the ground around the machine.

And, from bad to worse, Brady appears to have bought all Nuels' camping supplies from a chintzy source. The camp alarm is set off by the least breeze, and shows no ability to display animals that might be nearby, as Nuel learns when the piglet-with-wings (which he christens a "pixolet"), blunders back into his camp. Then he is astounded by the high resolution of the video that the only surviving exploration 'bot has to show him.

By concentrating on the consequences of a single change, and extending those results throughout the society he created, Brin wrote a classic science-fiction novel worthy of Asimov or Clarke. Further, the central concept of the novel makes explicit the crucial difference between creators and users.

What is the Practice Effect? I could echo Brady, and simply say, "Guess!" Or you could read the book to find out. 

I assure you, the answer is fascinating.